There’s a sort of musical holy grail (at least for me) that becomes visible when I listen to, say, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Tom Waits and there’s that moment of intensely gritty, crazy Deep South… something. I hear it when I listen to tracks like “Heart Attack and Vine” (either version) or Hawkins’ “Mercy” – it’s that slightly wild drawl that just beckons you into its glorious sleaze. It’s the sound that the Stones reached for with “Exile on Main Street” and Primal Scream could only dream of with “Give out but Don’t Give Up”.
And for thirty seconds at least listening to this album, I thought I’d found it again.
When, on the opener, “Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya”, the sax kicks in and he blasts on in snarling, “They call me Doctor John, known as the night tripper…” you know you’re in for a no-good good time.
If only it lasted.
This is an album that has a few touches of proto-funk, and a lot of bluesy darkness. It’s notable because it unashamedly reaches into New Orleans street rhythms and Creole atmosphere, but at the same time isn’t afraid to mess with Cuban beats, Bossa Nova, African drumming and whatever else it could get its hands on. And while brave, that’s where it starts to get hazy. “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” sounds like an African tribal song with a Spanish guitar accompaniment, while “Mama Roux” balances between Latin jazz and slow-paced funk (with a nice bit of Hammond organ). But “Danse Fambeaux” feels pedestrian, while the samba and harpsichord that make up “Croker Courtbullion” blend on in to the background too easily.
If you’re looking to get your funk on, then “Jump Sturdy” brings it back to life, while closer “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” is a proper groover with a bass drum that’ll make you jump, a raspy but stunning vocal and a real, authentic R&B sound before descending into a blues jam (with some nice bongo action). It’s good but, somehow for me at least, it’s not enough. It starts well, it ends interestingly but there’s not enough to keep you hooked. Shame, it was all going so well…